Comment Opinion & Features

Hurrah for the language of prostitutes, beggars, pimps – and bishops

The Vatican unveiled its latest innovation last Saturday: a news bulletin spoken entirely in Latin. Hebdomada Papae (“The Pope’s Week”) is a five-minute current affairs programme that will be broadcast at weekends on Vatican Radio’s Italian channel and posted to the website vaticannews.va. Communications chief Andrea Tornielli emphasises that the bulletin is an “actual, real news broadcast”. It is not, he says, “a nostalgic look at the past”, but rather “a challenge” to listeners to see Latin as a language with a future, not just an illustrious past.

It’s early to judge, but it looks as if the programme may already be a success. Harry Mount, author of ‘Amo, Amas, Amat … and All That’, has praised its professional production values. “Massimiliano Menichetti, the announcer, speaks very clearly and fluently,” he wrote at theoldie.co.uk. “To hear Latin spoken properly is very like hearing Italian but in its sublime, ancient original form.”

Mgr Waldemar Turek, head of the Vatican Secretariat of State’s Latin section, hopes that the new programme will be “an opportunity for young people and adults to be able to have direct contact with contemporary Latin”. The monsignor, who oversees the Pope’s Latin Twitter account, @Pontifex_ln, believes that the language of Cicero is capable of expressing even the most modern words. He and his colleagues draw on a two-volume lexicon of contemporary vocabulary. They are constantly adding to this work, which was compiled 30 years ago. For example, a UFO researcher is a ‘rerum inexplicatarum volantium studiosus’ and World Cup winners are ‘certaminibus mundialibus sphaeromachiae’.

The programme won’t spark a global Latin revival. But it is a welcome reminder that this ancient tongue has, more than any other, shaped the history and culture of the Catholic Church. Hairsplitters like to point out that, according to its constitution, the Vatican has no official language. It is a multilingual entity, but to this day it promulgates its laws in Latin in its official gazette, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. Benedict XVI made arguably the most important Vatican announcement of the 21st-century – his resignation – in Latin. And the world was notified of his successor’s election with the words “Habemus papam”.

The Latin news bulletin is something of a vindication for Fr Reginald Foster, an American Carmelite who for decades fought a lonely battle against the erosion of Latin. It was he who insisted that Vatican City’s ATM machines have a Latin option. (Users are instructed to “Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundam cognoscas rationem” or “Insert your card so that the account may be recognised.”) Fr Foster, who served as a papal Latinist from 1970 until his retirement in 2009, has lamented the ignorance of the language among the younger generation of priests and bishops. “Like classical music, Latin will always be there. If we cannot understand it, it is we who are losing out,” he has said, quite reasonably.

Fr Foster, an eccentric and much-loved teacher, insists that almost anyone can learn the language: “You do not need to be mentally excellent to know Latin. Prostitutes, beggars and pimps in Rome spoke Latin, so there must be some hope for us.”

It is good that in recent years, thanks to the liturgical reforms encouraged by Benedict XVI, Latin has made a modest comeback in our parishes. It is no longer unusual, for example, to hear the Gloria or the Sanctus sung in Latin. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of Ordinary Form Masses in Latin has increased, at least in the major cities, matching the growth of Extraordinary Form (Tridentine) Masses. Catholic schools, meanwhile, are also making a welcome effort to teach children some basic Latin prayers.

These changes are sometimes criticised as an attempt to “turn back the clock” to the pre-conciliar era. But that is clearly impossible. The goal is much more modest: to ensure that the Church remains connected to the language that for centuries was an integral part of its identity. So if you can, tune in to Hebdomada Papae. Even if you have bad child memories of Latin declensions, don’t be put off. Carpe diem.